Judge Gordon Sullivan's collection of photos of his thumb is now on exhibit at MOMA.
"We all get dressed for Bill."—Anna Wintour, Vogue editor
From its birth in the nineteenth century, photography (as many people have noted) has been pulled in two important directions. The first, and most usually represented these days, is the artistic direction. Photographers are considered artists on par with the respect accorded to painters and other classical artists. We see their work on magazine cover after magazine cover, and the most famous of them are household names, like Annie Leibovitz or Richard Avedon. The other strain, generally not as glamorous, is the documentary tradition. Though we see just as many documentary images, especially of catastrophes and war zones, fewer documentary photographers achieve cult-like status. I can think of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Dorthea Lange, though I would argue their photos are infinitely more famous than their names. In some ways, though, it's a false dichotomy, as many documentary shooters made art images, and many primarily art photographers have made important documentary images (see Leibovitz's work in Rolling Stone for example).
Then, there's Bill Cunningham, a photographer who explodes all of the boundaries between art and documentary. Traveling the Big Apple on his trusty bicycle, camera at hand, Cunningham documents the street fashions that dot the New York landscape. He takes a picture here, he takes a picture there, and then the trend he's noticed is suddenly aggregated in a photo spread under the name "On the Street" with his byline in The New York Times. He has a knack for capturing emerging trends. His other gig for the Times is attending (and photographing) high society events. He's been working at the newspaper for the last thirty years.
Bill Cunningham New York (Blu-ray) is a documentary portrait of this fascinating figure. Though his photos have been seen by millions of eyeballs and he's rubbed elbows with the richest of the rich for decades, he's a modest man about whom little is known, at least until this documentary. Bill Cunningham New York follows its subject through his working life, from the streets of New York to his simple apartment and out again to mingle with the glitterati. These moments are interspersed with interviews featuring Cunningham's friends and professional associates. We hear from the likes of Anna Wintour (editor of Vogue) and Tom Wolfe (novelist and noted Manhattanite).
Out of this collection of footage emerges a portrait of a man passionately committed to his work. No, not his job at the Times, but to the work of documenting fashion, from the simplest scarf worn by a broke college student to the diamond studs that adorn a socialite's ear, Cunningham sees it as his vocation to capture it all. Vocation is an appropriate word as well, since Cunningham is a Catholic, and he lives an almost monk-like existence. He travels by bike (even though he's in his eighties), lives in small apartment, and doesn't take the huge fees his fame could demand. Instead, he just takes picture after picture.
Unsurprisingly, those interviewed about Cunningham have little to say that isn't positive. He's an apparent force of nature whose images astound everyone regularly, and as a person he's so much less a prima donna than his age and position would suggest. The interview subjects are all fun in their own right as well, providing an interesting counterpoint to the more documentary footage of Cunningham's photography.
Cunningham's photography—at least at the street level—relies on a certain level of discretion. He shoots with a small, consumer-grade camera and doesn't draw attention to himself. Thus, the filmmakers couldn't tote around a giant HD setup behind him if they hoped to capture anything. Instead, Bill Cunningham New York was largely shot with consumer-level digital cameras. That means the 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded image is good, but not spectacular, owing to the limitations of consumer-grade electronics. With that said, detail is generally strong, and colors are bright and well saturated. The only real limitation is noise, which is especially apparent during darker scenes; it's not wildly distracting, but it is evidence of the film's origins. The DTS-HD soundtrack is technically a bit better than the image. Documentary audio is captured with great clarity, and is well-balanced in the mix. Some music is used, but for the most part dialogue comes from the center, with the surrounds being used for ambient effects.
Extras start with 20 minutes of additional scenes which are interesting enough to have made it into the feature, and also include the film's trailer.
If you care nothing at all about photography, New York City, or fashion, then Bill Cunningham New York is probably not for you. Also, if we're going to nitpick, a commentary would have made an excellent addition to an otherwise excellent Blu-ray release.
Bill Cunningham New York is a fantastic portrait of a New York City institution. Combining informative interviews with footage documenting its subject's daily rounds of the city, the film lets viewers see how some of the most important people in the city get photographed. This interesting subject is married to a fine hi-def release that makes it easy to recommend a rental or purchase for the interested.
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